OctaGlove brings the underwater gripping power of the octopus to humans

Researchers have developed an octopus-inspired OctaGlove that can securely grip objects under water. Credit: Virginia Tech

Any rescue diver or salvage worker knows it can be tricky to grab hold of slippery objects in a watery environment, particularly if a more delicate touch is required. That’s why scientists looked to the octopus for inspiration when they were developing a novel “OctaGlove,” a wearable system for gripping underwater objects that mimics the arm of an octopus, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances.

There are several examples in nature of efficient ways to latch onto objects in underwater environments, per the authors. Mussels, for instance, secrete adhesive proteins to attach themselves to wet surfaces, while frogs have uniquely structured toe pads that create capillary and hydrodynamic forces for adhesion. But cephalopods like the octopus have an added advantage: The adhesion supplied by their grippers can be quickly and easily reversed, so the creatures can adapt to changing conditions, attaching to wet and dry surfaces.

“When we look at the octopus, the adhesive certainly stands out, quickly activating and releasing adhesion on demand,” said co-author Michael Bartlett, a mechanical engineer at Virginia Tech. “What is just as interesting, though, is that the octopus controls over 2,000 suckers across eight arms by processing information from diverse chemical and mechanical sensors. The octopus is really bringing together adhesion tunability, sensing, and control to manipulate underwater objects.”

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#animals, #biology, #biomechanics, #biomimicry, #mechanical-engineering, #octopuses, #robotics, #science

People Come to Grips with Having an Extra Pair of Arms–in VR

New experiments show simulated robotic limbs can feel like a part of our own body with a little practice

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#robotics, #technology

Electronic Skin Lets Humans Feel What Robots Do–And Vice Versa

An integration of soft materials, sensors and flexible electronics is bringing robotic “skin” closer than ever to reality

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#biotech, #electronics, #robotics, #technology

Tiny, Tumbling Origami Robots Could Help with Targeted Drug Delivery

The design’s origami pattern creates the flexibility needed to deliver compounds to specific areas of the body

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#engineering, #robotics, #technology

Drones Could Spot Crime Scenes from Afar

A system could aid forensic searches and crime-scene mapping by detecting reflections from human materials

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#advances, #engineering, #robotics, #technology

Record-Breaking Jumping Robot Can Leap a 10-Story Building

To propel itself higher than any known engineered jumper or animal can, it had to ignore the limits of biology

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#engineering, #robotics, #space-exploration, #technology

Birds Make Better Bipedal Bots Than Humans Do

A new machine called BirdBot balances walking efficiency and speed

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#anatomy, #animals, #biology, #engineering, #robotics, #technology

The robber fly is an aerodynamic acrobat that can catch its prey in midflight

A miniature predatory robber fly (<em>Holcocephala fascia</em>) feeds on a captured rove beetle. A new study reveals that the fly approaches its prey from underneath, aiming for a future meeting point wth the target.

Enlarge / A miniature predatory robber fly (Holcocephala fascia) feeds on a captured rove beetle. A new study reveals that the fly approaches its prey from underneath, aiming for a future meeting point wth the target. (credit: Samuel Fabian)

Robber flies are aerodynamic acrobats, able to spot their prey, dodge around obstacles, and capture smaller insects at high speeds in midflights. Scientists have taken a closer look at how robber flies manage this amazing feat despite having brains on par with a single grain of sand. According to a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the flies combine two distinct feedback-based navigation strategies: one that involves intercepting the prey when the view is clear, and another that allows the flies to swerve around any obstacles in their flight path.

One of the challenges in robotics is how to design robots that can navigate cluttered environments—something humans and other animals manage to do instinctively every day. Per the authors, many robotic systems rely upon a kind of path-planning: using sound (sonar) or lasers to send out signals and then detecting the reflections. That data can then be used to build a distance map of the surroundings.

But compared to using simple visual cues (i.e., “reactive methods”), path-planning is a costly approach in terms of energy use. Humans and other animals don’t require elaborate maps or specific knowledge about a target’s location, speed, and other details. We simply react to any relevant stimuli in our environment in real time. Devising navigational behavioral algorithms based on biological systems is thus of great interest to roboticists.

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#aerodynamics, #arthropods, #biology, #biomimicry, #insects, #physics, #robber-flies, #robotics, #science

The beating heart of a swimming robot

Image of a small, fish shaped plastic piece covered with cells.

Enlarge (credit: Lee et al.)

Most muscles in our bodies only act in response to incoming nerve signals, which have to trigger each individual muscle cell to contract or relax. But heart muscle is different. The impulses that trigger contraction in heart muscle are passed from one muscle cell to its neighbors, leading to a rhythmic wave of contractions. This is so thoroughly built into the system that a sheet of heart muscle cells in a culture dish will start contracting spontaneously.

Now, researchers have taken advantage of some of the unique properties of cardiac cells to build a swimming robot fish powered by nothing but sugar. And while they tried to craft the heart’s equivalent of a pacemaker, it turned out not to be needed: the right arrangement of muscle cells got the fish swimming spontaneously.

Building a heart-like muscle

In some ways, the paper describing the new robot fish is a tribute to our growing ability to control stem cell development. The researchers behind the paper, based at Harvard, decided to use cardiac muscle cells to power their robot. A couple of years ago, this would have meant dissecting out a heart from an experimental animal before isolating and growing its cardiac cells in culture.

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#biology, #engineering, #heart-muscle, #robotics, #science, #stem-cells, #synthetic-biology

Lego Robot with an Organic ‘Brain’ Learns to Navigate a Maze

The neuromorphic computing device solved the puzzle by working like an animal brain would

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#artificial-intelligence, #mindbrain, #neuroscience, #robotics, #technology

The Best Fun Science Stories of 2021: Rhythmic Lemurs, a Marscopter and Sex-Obsessed Insect Zombies

Check out the weird and wonderful stories that delighted us this year

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#animals, #biology, #planetary-science, #plants, #robotics

3-D-Printed Chicken Dinner Cooked by Lasers

A laser-focused chef prints and cooks complex designs

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#advances, #engineering, #robotics, #technology

Putting the fear of bass into mosquitofish—with a robot

The Robo-bass, along with some actual fish.

Enlarge / The Robo-bass, along with some actual fish. (credit: Giovanni Polverino)

The mosquitofish is a particularly troublesome invasive species that has spread from its original home in North America to various locales around the world, including Europe and Australia. The small, 3 cm-long fish likes to chew the tails off fish and tadpoles and consume the eggs of other freshwater denizens.

Being an invasive species, the fish are mostly fearless, and they have no predators in the places they’ve colonized. However, an international team of biologists and engineers has found a solution to the problem: a robot.

Back in 2019, Giovanni Polverino—currently a post-doc at the University of Western Australia—and his colleagues developed a mechanical largemouth bass that proved to be effective in scaring mosquitofish. In North America, juvenile largemouth bass regularly make meals of the species; the primal fear of this predator has stuck with the mosquito fish as they traversed the globe.

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#australia, #fish, #invasive-species, #robotics, #science

Want to Get Humans to Trust Robots? Let Them Dance

A performance with living and mechanical partners can teach researchers how to design more relatable bots

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#arts, #creativity, #mindbrain, #robotics, #technology

Evolution Gym Sculpts Novel Robot Bodies and Brains

The virtual robots look weird, but they get the job done

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#artificial-intelligence, #intelligence, #robotics, #technology

Pompeii’s Ruins to Be Reconstructed by Robot

An ambitious project is underway to develop a robot with enough smarts, strength and sensitivity to restore fragmented archaeological remains

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#archaeology, #culture, #robotics, #social-sciences

To Better Persuade a Human, a Robot Should Use This Trick

A new study finds that, for robots, overlords are less persuasive than peers.

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#robotics, #technology

Firefighting Robots Go Autonomous

Both independent and remote-controlled machines can save lives

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#climate-change, #engineering, #environment, #natural-disasters, #robotics, #technology

These virtual obstacle courses help real robots learn to walk

A clip from the simulation where virtual robots learn to climb steps.

An army of more than 4,000 marching doglike robots is a vaguely menacing sight, even in a simulation. But it may point the way for machines to learn new tricks.

The virtual robot army was developed by researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and chipmaker Nvidia. They used the wandering bots to train an algorithm that was then used to control the legs of a real-world robot.

In the simulation, the machines—called ANYmals—confront challenges like slopes, steps, and steep drops in a virtual landscape. Each time a robot learned to navigate a challenge, the researchers presented a harder one, nudging the control algorithm to be more sophisticated.

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#ai, #artificial-intelligence, #nvidia, #robotics, #science, #tech

EarthOptics helps farmers look deep into the soil for big data insights

Farming sustainably and efficiently has gone from a big tractor problem to a big data problem over the last few decades, and startup EarthOptics believes the next frontier of precision agriculture lies deep in the soil. Using high-tech imaging techniques, the company claims to map the physical and chemical composition of fields faster, better, and more cheaply than traditional techniques, and has raised $10M to scale its solution.

“Most of the ways we monitor soil haven’t changed in 50 years,” EarthOptics founder and CEO Lars Dyrud told TechCrunch. “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress around precision data and using modern data methods in agriculture – but a lot of that has focused on the plants and in-season activity — there’s been comparatively little investment in soil.”

While you might think it’s obvious to look deeper into the stuff the plants are growing from, the simple fact is it’s difficult to do. Aerial and satellite imagery and IoT-infused sensors for things like moisture and nitrogen have made surface-level data for fields far richer, but past the first foot or so things get tricky.

Different parts of a field may have very different levels of physical characteristics like soil compaction, which can greatly affect crop outcomes, and chemical characteristics like dissolved nutrients and the microbiome. The best way to check these things, however, involves “putting a really expensive stick in the ground,” said Dyrud. The lab results from these samples affects the decision of which parts of a field need to be tilled and fertilized.

It’s still important, so farms get it done, but having soil sampled every few acres once or twice a year adds up fast when you have 10,000 acres to keep track of. So many just till and fertilize everything for lack of data, sinking a lot of money (Dyrud estimated the U.S. does about $1B in unnecessary tilling) into processes that might have no benefit and in fact might be harmful — it can release tons of carbon that was safely sequestered underground.

EarthOptics aims to make the data collection process better essentially by minimizing the “expensive stick” part. It has built an imaging suite that relies on ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction to produce a deep map of the soil that’s easier, cheaper, and more precise than extrapolating acres of data from a single sample.

Machine learning is at the heart of the company’s pair of tools, GroundOwl and C-Mapper (C as in carbon). The team trained a model that reconciles the no-contact data with traditional samples taken at a much lower rate, learning to predict soil characteristics accurately at level of precision far beyond what has traditionally been possible. The imaging hardware can be mounted on ordinary tractors or trucks, and pulls in readings every few feet. Physical sampling still happens, but dozens rather than hundreds of times.

With today’s methods, you might divide your thousands of acres into 50-acre chunks: this one needs more nitrogen, this one needs tilling, this one needs this or that treatment. EarthOptics brings that down to the scale of meters, and the data can be fed directly into roboticized field machinery like a variable depth smart tiller.

Drive it along the fields and it goes only as deep as it needs to. Of course not everyone has a state of the art equipment, so the data can also be put out as a more ordinary map telling the driver in a more general sense when to till or perform other tasks.

If this approach takes off, it could mean major savings for farmers looking to tighten belts, or improved productivity per acre and dollar for those looking to scale up. And ultimately the goal is to enable automated and robotic farming as well. That transition is in an early stage as equipment and practices get hammered out, but one thing they will all need is good data.

Dyrud said he hopes to see the EarthOptics sensor suite on robotic tractors, tillers, and other farm equipment, but that their product is very much the data and the machine learning model they’ve trained up with tens of thousands of ground truth measurements.

The $10.3M A round was led by Leaps by Bayer (the conglomerate’s impact arm), with participation from S2G Ventures, FHB Ventures, Middleland Capital’s VTC Ventures and Route 66 Ventures. The plan for the money is to scale up the two existing products and get to work on the next one: moisture mapping, obviously a major consideration for any farm.

#artificial-intelligence, #food, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greentech, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups, #tc

The next healthcare revolution will have AI at its center

The global pandemic has heightened our understanding and sense of importance of our own health and the fragility of healthcare systems around the world. We’ve all come to realize how archaic many of our health processes are, and that, if we really want to, we can move at lightning speed. This is already leading to a massive acceleration in both the investment and application of artificial intelligence in the health and medical ecosystems.

Modern medicine in the 20th century benefited from unprec­edented scientific breakthroughs, resulting in improvements in every as­pect of healthcare. As a result, human life expectancy increased from 31 years in 1900 to 72 years in 2017. Today, I believe we are on the cusp of another healthcare revolution — one driven by artificial intelligence (AI). Advances in AI will usher in the era of modern medicine in truth.

Over the coming decades, we can expect medical diagnosis to evolve from an AI tool that provides analysis of options to an AI assistant that recommends treatments.

Digitization enables powerful AI

The healthcare sector is seeing massive digitization of everything from patient records and radiology data to wearable computing and multiomics. This will redefine healthcare as a data-driven industry, and when that happens, it will leverage the power of AI — its ability to continuously improve with more data.

When there is enough data, AI can do a much more accurate job of diagnosis and treatment than human doctors by absorbing and checking billions of cases and outcomes. AI can take into account everyone’s data to personalize treatment accordingly, or keep up with a massive number of new drugs, treatments and studies. Doing all of this well is beyond human capabilities.

AI-powered diagnosis

I anticipate diagnostic AI will surpass all but the best doctors in the next 20 years. Studies have shown that AI trained on sizable data can outperform physicians in several areas of medical diagnosis regarding brain tumors, eye disease, breast cancer, skin cancer and lung cancer. Further trials are needed, but as these technologies are deployed and more data is gathered, the AI stands to outclass doctors.

We will eventually see diagnostic AI for general practitioners, one disease at a time, to gradually cover all diagnoses. Over time, AI may become capable of acting as your general practitioner or family doctor.

#artificial-intelligence, #biotechnology, #cancer, #column, #drug-discovery, #ec-column, #ec-enterprise-health, #ec-robotics, #health, #healthcare, #medical-imaging, #pharmaceuticals, #precision-medicine, #robotics, #startups

Boston Dynamics owner Hyundai deploys Spot for factory safety monitoring

Back in June, Hyundai completed a deal for controlling interest in Boston Dynamics. The Korean automotive giant no doubt has some grand plans for integrating the Massachusetts-based firm’s technology into a lot of their forward-looking concept mobility vehicles – for now, however, it’s more about putting existing robots to work.

Hyundai today announced the arrival of the drably-named “Factory Safety Service Robot.” It immediately began referring to the unit as “the Robot” for reasons of brevity in the announcement release, and I’m inclined to do the same, because who has the time to type out “Factory Safety Service Robot” a dozen times?

The Robot (see?) is essentially a modded up version of Spot designed for safety inspections at factories. Naturally, Hyundai is starting close to home, rolling out its first pilot at a Seoul plant for subsidiary, Kia.

The Spot, er, Robot, comes equipped for LiDAR and a thermal camera, which scan the space for high-temperatures, fire hazards and open doors. If it senses something off, it will send an alert through a secure site. It shares images and data in real-time, and like Spot, can either operate autonomously or be controlled remotely.


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“The Factory Safety Service Robot is the first collaboration project with Boston Dynamics. The Robot will help detect risks and secure people’s safety in industrial sites,” said Hyundai’s Dong Jin Hyun said in a release. “We will also continue to create smart services that detect dangers at industrial sites and help support a safe work environment through continuous collaborations with Boston Dynamics.”

On the whole, if you know what Spot can do, you pretty much get the gist with Robot here, albeit with additional mounted sensors. Earlier this week, Boston Dynamics announced additional data collecting features for the robot.

#automotive, #robotics

Tiger’s bullish robotic investments

On Tuesday, Tiger Global led not one but two big funding rounds, announcing its role in a $26 million Series A for Ambi and an additional $50 million for Locus Robotics. The firm has been so active in investing of late, that neither one of these companies cracked Alex’s coveted “Today’s Tiger round” in our daily newsletter (that honor went to a $150 million round for Indonesian fintech company Xendit).

It’s fair to say that Tiger is bullish about robotics as a category. Other rounds in recent months include $36.7 million for Rapid Robotics and $100 million for Path — both Series B. All of the rounds are head-turning in the robotics world, and they represent a broad scope under the larger robotics umbrella. Ambi and Locus both operate (though address different problems) in the logistics/fulfillment spaces, while Path and Rapid deal with construction and manufacturing, respectively.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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Certainly that last bit speaks to how diversified interest has been in the category. All of the above industries no doubt saw enough impact during the pandemic to significantly accelerate interest in automation.

Image Credits: Locus Robotics

It’s also telling that the warehouse/fulfillment side of things gets a bit of extra love. In addition to the general strains of the pandemic, there’s the fact that everyone is looking for a way to compete with Amazon. The retailer already has a massive stranglehold on these categories and gave itself a big head start in terms of automation through a series of acquisitions. It’s an industry where any competitive advantage means a lot, and companies like Locus are hoping to crack that code.

In February, the company raised a hefty $150 million, with Tiger on as co-lead. And this week, the firm returned with another $50 million. Locus’ approach to the category offers more flexibility than those companies that require a kind of ground-up rebuild. It’s an appealing option in terms of pricing and time frame, and makes a lot more sense for organizations looking for seasonable robotic help — ditto for the company’s robotics-as-a-service pricing model.

Image Credits: Ambi Robotics

Ambi, which got its first TechCrunch mention in one of these columns several months back, specializes in pick and place/sorting robots. The company came out of stealth is April and is already seeing solid adoption.

“Ambi Robotics combines cutting-edge AI technology with engaging user interfaces to transform the role of ‘item handlers’ to ‘robot handlers,’ ” CEO Jim Liefer said in a release. “With our Series A funding, we will be able to empower more companies to help their associates work harmoniously alongside robots.”

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

On the aforementioned ground-up approach to warehouse automation, Berkshire Grey this week announced its own Robotic Pick and Pack (RPP) system, designed to pack goods into shipping packages. The system has already been deployed at SoftBank Logistics’ flagship location in Ichikawa, Japan.

Here’s COO Steve Johnson:

We believe our RPP system is the first robotic eCommerce fulfillment solution capable of completely automating the picking and packing process of direct-to-consumer orders for apparel, cosmetics, health and beauty, sporting equipment, food and general merchandise — it will transform the speed and efficiencies of warehouses and fulfillment centers around the globe. Berkshire Grey RPP excels in handling orders – the AI handles a wide range of SKUs and does so carefully – meeting even the exacting quality standards of Japanese consumers.

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics, meanwhile, announced an update for Spot that brings additional autonomous features to the four-legged robot. Specifically, the Spot Release 3.0 update is designed to improve the robot’s data collection capabilities. Per BD:

Schedule missions for Spot to collect photos, thermal images, point clouds, and other critical data; process that data into valuable signals at the edge with computer vision models; and create custom uploads to send those signals to your existing systems, so it’s easy to keep all of your data in one place for analysis and review. Spot Release 3.0 makes dynamic sensing available to everyone.

#actuator, #ambi, #berkshire-grey, #boston-dynamics, #locus, #robotics, #robotics-roundup, #tc, #tiger, #tiger-global

Locus Robotics just raised another $50M

Seems Locus Robotics is striking while the iron is hot. Seven months after raising a sizable $150 million Series E, Tiger Global is investing another $50 million in the Massachusetts firm. The last round made Locus a unicorn, and this one brings the company’s total funding to around $300 million.

Locus specializes in warehouse and fulfillment robotics, making a more modular solution that doesn’t require the sort of “ground-up build” of a Berkshire Grey. The company’s approach is closer to that of Fetch, which was acquired by Zebra Technologies back in July. Locus seems prime for an acquisition from a logistics firm or retailer grappling to compete with the monolith of Amazon.

The continued funding rounds, on the other hand, seem to point to a company looking to continue to go it alone.


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CEO Rick Faulk confirmed as much with me back in February, stating, “We have no interest in being acquired. We think we can build the most and greatest value by operating independently. There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.”

Faulk adds this morning that the new funds are a kind of validation for Locus. Certainly they’re yet another sign in accelerated interest in automation amid the pandemic. “At a time of increasing volumes and ongoing labor shortages, this new round of funding underscores how critical flexible, scalable, intelligent robotics automation has become to the warehouse and the supply chain,” the executive says. “Locus is uniquely positioned to drive digital transformation in this enormous global market.”

Funding will be used to further expand Locus’ global operations.

#funding, #locus-robotics, #logistics, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups, #tiger-global

Skype alumni head to court in a battle over Starship Technologies and Wire

A new lawsuit threatens a decades-long collaboration that brought Skype, robot delivery startup Starship Technologies and encrypted enterprise messaging service Wire into the world.

TechCrunch has learned that Mark Dyne, one of Skype’s founding investors, is suing billionaire Skype co-founder Janus Friis in California’s Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles for unlawful conspiracy in his business dealings.

The lawsuit is complex, with plenty of twists, turns and allegations. The heart of the dispute is whether Dyne and his partners, who had managed some of Friis’s investments, were working for — or simply with — the Skype co-founder when they organized a rescue package for Wire in 2019.

At stake is who gets to control Wire and the financial return each side gets from Starship.

Dyne and his investor partners accuse Friis of illegally replacing one of them as a director of a general partnership that manages Wire, and conspiring to reduce their interest in Starship Technologies. Dyne and his partners also allege (and dismiss) accusations by Friis that they had fiduciary duties to him when they found funding for and restructured Wire.

“[Friis] unfortunately believes he is always entitled to have what he wants, can force others to do what he wants, and can re-write history (and agreements) whenever it suits his present purpose,” reads the complaint, filed in July, but not previously reported.

Founding stories

Dyne was a key player in the history of Skype, as one of its original investors and its first board member. He remained on the board through its sale to eBay for more than $2.6 billion in 2005, and was part of the group that bought Skype from eBay in 2009. He was still on the board when it was eventually sold to Microsoft in 2011.

Dyne and Friis worked together extensively in the years after Skype. Dyne was an investor and board member of Friis’s ill-fated music streaming service Rdio, which filed for bankruptcy in 2015. Like Friis, he also served as a director of the general partners of the Iconical investment funds that funded Wire to the tune of more than $64.5 million between 2013 and 2018, according to the lawsuit.

Wire, launched by ex-Skype and Microsoft engineers, offers secure end-to-end encrypted messaging, file sharing, voice and video calls. Friis hoped Wire would become “the new Skype,” according to the lawsuit, but became disenchanted after it failed to scale quickly, and then pivoted to enterprise. Five years after its launch, Wire had acquired only about 150,000 users, all of whom were non-revenue generating, the lawsuit notes, and was burning through $8 to $10 million a year.

“Friis has a history of abandoning companies when they did not achieve their early objectives in his sole opinion,” the lawsuit reads. In addition, it states, Friis himself was highly involved with the design of the robots, the logo and the software app at Starship Technologies.

A turning point

At this point, the men were apparently still friends. They were working on a new venture referred to in the lawsuit only as “Project X,” and in 2017, Friis even donated $500,000 to Dyne’s charitable foundation.

In late 2018, the lawsuit says that Friis cut off the flow of cash from Wire’s loan facility and sent a text message to Dyne, reading: “Want to make sure we are ready to put everything into a Foundation if all else fails.” Wire would become free open source software, with the foundation responsible for setting terms for open source licenses. Friis envisioned himself, Wire’s CTO Alan Duric and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales sitting on its board.

But Dyne and his partners had a different idea. In early 2019, when Wire was only days away from shutting down, according to the lawsuit, Dyne and his partners quickly pulled together an $8 million Series A including them, Marbruck Investments and Wire’s own executive management team.

Friis told others that Dyne had “pulled off a miracle” in finding this financing, states the lawsuit. Although the Iconical funds would remain Wire’s single-largest shareholder, the transaction would, apparently, remove the company from Friis’s direct control.

The lawsuit says that following the round, Friis called Duric “a completely f**king disaster” and hastened to sever all ties with the company. It alleges he missed board meetings and did not speak to Morten Brøgger, Wire’s CEO, for nearly a year and a half.

That seems to have changed this year, following Wire’s $21 million Series B round. In May, Friis insisted that Wire be redomiciled in Germany, the lawsuit states: “In hindsight, this was clearly part of Friis’s undisclosed plan to reacquire control of Wire.”

In a Zoom (not Skype or Wire) call in October, says the lawsuit, Friis alleged that if the terms of the Wire transaction had been made clear to him and he had been properly advised, he would have never agreed to it, blaming Dyne and his partners. He also replaced one of them as a director and stalled meetings, it says.

The fight over Starship

Nor are Friis’s actions limited to Wire, according to the lawsuit. It says that Friis was always vexed that he did not have a controlling interest in the sidewalk robot delivery startup Starship, which was structured as a 50/50 deal with another Skype alumnus, Ahti Heinla. The lawsuit includes a screengrab of a text from Friis to Dyne suggesting if that structure could be remedied “in a way that was set in stone, one would easily pay [$]10-15 million for it.”

The lawsuit alleges that Friis conspired with one of his companies to inaccurately claim Starship as a “controlled portfolio company” of one of the Iconical funds. This would inflate his own interest in it at the expense of Dyne and his partners “to the point where [our] interest is no longer a financeable asset in the secondary markets,” it says. “Friis will say or do anything in order to suit his present fiction, no matter the cost to others.”

Dyne did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Friis’ legal team filed a motion to quash the lawsuit on Friday, on the grounds that Friis — a Danish citizen living in London — is not subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

The motion stated: “More than a decade ago, Dyne [and partner] recognized they could profit handsomely if they hitched their wagon to Friis. And over the ensuing years, while extracting millions of dollars’ worth of fees and profit interests, they pretended they were acting as Friis’s and his entities’ trusted fiduciaries overseeing and managing Friis’s various venture capital pursuits. But in reality… Plaintiffs had a single-minded focus of advancing their own commercial interests at the expense of Friis.”

Friis’s lawyers also provided TechCrunch with the following statement: “Dyne’s defective lawsuit is a defensive reaction to questions raised regarding his and his team’s conduct… Although we believe that the allegations in the complaint are irresponsible, incomplete, and without merit, they also effectively concede that Dyne and his team breached fiduciary duties over their decade-plus relationship as trusted advisers. We look forward to fully addressing these matters in litigation.”

The outcome of this lawsuit, which is still in its early days, is likely to have little immediate impact on the operations of either Starship, which has made over 1.5 million autonomous deliveries and recently snagged ex-Google Loon chief Alastair Westgarth as its CEO, or Wire, which completed its pivot to enterprise customers and enjoyed some success during the pandemic.

However, it does spell the end of a dream team that has created some of the most interesting and influential startups of the 21st century so far.

#finance, #janus-friis, #lawsuit, #mark-dyne, #microsoft, #robotics, #skype, #starship-technologies, #transportation, #venture-capital, #wire

Logistics robotics startup Ambi raises $26M

Five months ago, Ambi Robotics emerged from stealth with a $6 million raise. Today the Bay Area-based firm is back with several times that, announcing a $26 million Series A, led by Tiger Global. The new round also features participation from existing investors, including Bow Capital, Vertex Ventures US and The House Fund.

The startup first hit our radar through the involvement of UC Berkeley (and frequent TC Sessions: Robotics guest Ken Goldberg). Ambi operates in the pick and place robotics space — it’s a crowded category, but one with an intense level of interest, as more warehouse and fulfillment centers are accelerating toward automation after the shutdowns of the past year.

Ambi has already enlisted some high-profile partners, including Pitney Bowes. In spite of only coming out of stealth in April, the robotics startup began deploying its first systems — including the AmbiSort and AmbiKit — in October of last year, ahead of the massive holiday rush.


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The company’s primary differentiation is in the AI that powers its picking robotics system.

“Ambi Robotics combines cutting-edge AI technology with engaging user interfaces to transform the role of ‘item handlers’ to ‘robot handlers,’ ” CEO Jim Liefer said in a release. “With our Series A funding, we will be able to empower more companies to help their associates work harmoniously alongside robots.”

This latest round will go toward scaling both the systems and the team of humans that build them, and deploying additional units.

#ambi-robotics, #logistics, #recent-funding, #robotics, #startups, #tiger-global

iRobot’s poop problem

I’m all for encouraging more young people to enter STEM, to explore engineering and perhaps ultimately pursue a career in robotics. It’s a field whose importance will only grow with time, as more of the world looks toward automated solutions. And it probably goes without saying that one of the most effective ways to bolster a workforce from automated job loss is ensuring that more people entering the workforce gain the skills for programming such machines.

That said, there’s really no point in sugarcoating most of this. If you think the day to day realities of becoming a roboticist involve standing onstage while one of your employees does Daft Punk cosplay to Skrillex, I’ve got some unfortunate news for you. A heck of a lot more out there are currently making 3D models of dog poop. Remember, there are no number twos in binary code.

You see, iRobot had a poop problem. There are dozens if not hundreds of YouTube videos documenting the phenomenon, as a Roomba approaches a pile of fresh dog droppings, hovers over it a bit, and then makes a snail-like trail of fecal smears across the hardwood or carpet. It’s honestly probably among the most widespread and unintentionally hilarious (depending on your point of view) consequences of mainstreaming robots.

People’s imaginations tend to project the worst-case scenarios with robots. Any time we post a Boston Dynamics video, I get dozens of responses from people recalling that one Black Mirror episode they saw that one time — it has temporarily supplanted Skynet jokes. But the truth of the matter is that a vast majority of robots have no intention of killing you. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to unintentionally smear dog crap up and down your linoleum.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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In preparation for the latest Roomba, however, the company spent a lot of time with pet poop. Like a lot a lot of time. Arguably an unhealthy amount of time studying the stuff, modeling it, taking pictures.

“The glorious career of roboticists may not have been fully realized when we were sending people home and creating hundreds of models of poo,” CEO Colin Angle recently told me. “Sending people around to photograph and create synthetic models of poo. I don’t know how many tens of thousands of images of all different shapes and sizes of synthetic images were required, but this is not demo code, clearly.”

It was among the weirder homework assignments for the Bedford, Massachusetts-based 1staff. One employee apparently got so into the work she got extremely excited when her dog had an accident on the floor. At least she got some good photos out of the deal.

When real-world animal droppings were harder to come by, the company generated fake poop in order to approximate a wide range of sizes, shapes and consistencies.

“You imagine it, we probably attempted it to grow a large enough database with both real images, images of fake poo and synthetic images that were manufactured of poop to serve as a training model for our robot,” Angle adds.

Image Credits: (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

All of this leads us to Pet Owner Official Promise (P.O.O.P.), which guarantees a free return for the new j7+ if the Roomba runs into (and over) a poop problem. For the time being, however, iRobot is strictly adhering to the old adage about letting yellow mellow. “We can’t do pee,” says Angle. “It has to have some 3D aspects to it.”

The poop problem was far from iRobot’s only struggle over the past year, of course. While the pandemic has ultimately served to accelerate much of the industry, the early days of global shutdowns came with their share of issues for the Roomba maker. In the early days, the company laid off 70 employees and indefinitely halted production of its long-awaited robotic mower.

Says Angle:

The past year and a half has been an extraordinary rollercoaster. At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like the world was ending and 60% of our sales was coming from retail stores, which were being closed. It was a really terrifying time as we tried to figure out how to navigate. Then what happened was people were working from home. When you’re spending a lot of time at home, things get dirtier faster. If you’re used to cleaning while your kids are at school, suddenly your kids are not at school anymore. Families were tearing their hair out just to survive and keep things under control. So work from home created a significant acceleration of interest in assistive technologies.

Safeway Tortoise

Image Credits: Tortoise/Albertsons

Meanwhile, robotic delivery service Tortoise is about to get a pretty big boost as last-mile logistics company AxleHire announced plans to employee 100 of its robots across the U.S. AxleHire operates in the package delivery space, including perishables from meal kit companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh. No word on precisely which markets we’re talking about here, but Rebecca notes that the company currently operates in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the Robotic Unicorn. I find that nine times out of 10, tech companies’ claims of being “first” are dubious, at best, but XPeng Robotics’ note that this is “its first ridable robot unicorn” seems to check out. It does, however, already have some competition in the broader rideable robotic unicorn category. Forgot the overall rideable unicorn category. You can’t swing a narwhal around without hitting a rideable unicorn these days.

Honestly, it’s tough to say whether this is a stunt, given the extremely CG nature of the video here. XPeng is apparently using the big toy robot as a way to test the waters for a broader entry into the robotics category.

#actuator, #irobot, #poop, #robotics, #robotics-roundup, #roomba, #tortoise, #xpeng

The newest Roomba gets smarter as it vacuums

The Roomba is easily among the most ubiquitous robots in the world — but it has never been one of the smartest. On the whole, that’s not a major issue. The top-selling vacuum is good at what it does: cleaning floors. But a roboticist’s work is never done; iRobot has turned the vast majority of its attention and resources on the line for good reason, and the company has spent virtually every generation improving the robot’s ability to perform its very specific task.

This time out, that means using on-board sensors to remember areas of the home and layout, along with areas that need a little extra cleaning time.

“We’ve turned on continuous learning, so that if you’ve changed things in your home, Roomba will figure it out,” CEO Colin Angle tells TechCrunch. “If you open a door that you’ve never opened before, the Roomba will go explore it. If you moved a couch, it will understand that the home is a bit different than it used to be, and that’s okay. The information that we’re gathering grows in richness.”

Image Credits: iRobot

The other big piece of that puzzle is identifying and avoiding specific objects. The company says it has worked on identifying hundreds of potential objects, but is starting with two specific problem areas: cords and poop. Both are big potential problem areas for a robotic vacuum system, albeit for dramatically different reasons. In either case, you don’t want to have to get down on your hands and knees and deal with the fallout.

In the case of the former, iRobot made an acronym — and a guarantee. With Pet Owner Official Promise (P.O.O.P.), the company says it will replace any j7+ that runs over animal dookie. (Fine print: Offer valid for 1 year from purchase and covers replacement product only. Available in limited jurisdictions, additional terms and conditions apply.)

“You can Google this and see some not so pleasant examples of robots running over poop,” says iRobot’s director of Product Management, Hooman Shahidi. “We’ve solved this problem with consumers. If we see animal poop, we avoid it and inform the consumers that we saw it.”

Image Credits: iRobot

Angle adds, “The glorious career of roboticists may not have been fully realized when we were sending people home and creating hundreds of models of poo. Sending people around to photograph and create synthetic models of poo. I don’t know how many tens of thousands of images of all different shapes and sizes of synthetic images were required, but this is not demo code, clearly. We can’t do pee. It has to have some 3D aspects to it, but it is something we believe you can count on for the robot to identify and avoid.”

The third piece is scheduling, with the system adapting to a user’s activities. That could mean cleaning while you’re away (using your phone as a trigger for proximity) or making sure it avoids rooms you’re in. If the robot has to traverse the house, it will drive quietly and not start up until it actually begins its job. The system also now offers a clean-time estimate to let the user know how long the job will take.

The j7 is available now in the U.S. and Canada for $649. The j7+, which includes a more compact cleaning base, will run $849. They’re also available in Europe and will be rolling out to additional markets next year. Genius 3.0, meanwhile, will be available as an OTA update for the rest of the company’s connected robots.

#hardware, #irobot, #poop, #robotics, #roomba

Alphabet X’s exosuit

Last week, Kathryn Zealand shared some insight on the eve of Women’s Equality Day. The post highlighted an issue that’s been apparent to everyone in and around the robotics industry: there’s a massive gender gap. It’s something we try to be mindful of, particularly when programming events like TC Sessions: Robotics. Zealand cites some pretty staggering figures in the piece.

According to the stats, around 9% of robotics engineers are female. That’s bad. That’s, like, bad even by the standards of STEM fields in general — which is to say, it’s really, really bad. (The ethnic disparities in the same source are worth drawing attention to, as well.)

Zealand’s piece was published on LinkedIn — fitting, given that the overarching focus here is on hiring. Well worth your time, if you’re involved in the hiring process at a robotics firm and are concerned about broader diversity issues (which hopefully go hand in hand for most orgs). Zealand offers some outside of the box thinking in terms of what, precisely, it means to be a roboticist, writing:

We have a huge opportunity here! Women and other under-represented groups are untapped pools of talented people who, despite not thinking of themselves as “roboticists,” could be vital members of a world-changing robotics team.

I’m going to be real with you for a minute, and note what really caught my eye was that above image. See, Zealand is a Project Lead at Alphabet X. And what you have there is a robotic brace — or, rather, what appears to be a component of a soft exosuit.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Exosuits/exoskeletons are a booming category for robotics right now that really run the gamut from Sarcos’ giant James Cameron-esque suit to far subtler, fabric-based systems. Some key names in the space include Ekso Bionics, ReWalk and SuitX. Heck, even Samsung has shown off a solution as part of a robotics department that appears to be largely ornamental at the moment.

Image Credits: Harvard Biodesign Lab

Most of these systems aim to tackle one of two issues: 1) Augmenting workers to assist with difficult or repetitive tasks for work and 2) Provide assistance to those with impaired mobility. Many companies have offers for both. Here’s what Harvard’s Biodesign Lab has to say on the matter:

As compared to a traditional exoskeleton, these systems have several advantages: the wearer’s joints are unconstrained by external rigid structures, and the worn part of the suit is extremely light. These properties minimize the suit’s unintentional interference with the body’s natural biomechanics and allow for more synergistic interaction with the wearer.

Alphabet loves to give the occasional behind-the-scenes peak at some of its X projects, and it turns out we’ve had a couple of glimpses of the Smarty Pants project. Zealand and Smarty Pants make a cameo in a Wired UK piece that ran early last year about the 10th anniversary of Google/Alphabet X. The piece notes that that the project was inspired by her experience with her 92-year-old grandmother’s mobility issues.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The piece highlights a very early Raspberry Pi-controlled setup created by a team that includes costume designers and deep learning specialists (getting back to that earlier discussion about outside the box thinking when it comes to what constitutes a roboticist). The system is using sensors in an attempt to effectively predict movement in order to anticipate where force needs to be applied for tasks like walking up stairs. The piece ends on a fittingly somber note, “Fewer than half of X’s investigations become Projects. By the time this story is published it will probably have been killed.”

My suspicion is that the team is looking to differentiate itself from other exosuit projects by leveraging Google’s knowledge base of deep learning and AI to build out those predictive algorithms.

Alphabet declined to offer additional information on the project, noting that it likes to give its moonshot teams, “time to learn and iterate out of the spotlight.” But last October, we got what is probably our best look at Smarty Pants, in the form of a video highlighting Design Kitchen, Alphabet X’s lab/design studio.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The Wired piece mentions a “pearlescent bumbag,” holding the aforementioned Raspberry Pi and additional components. For you yanks, that’s a fanny pack, which are not referred to as such in the U.K., owing to certain regional slang. Said fanny pack also makes an appearance in the video, providing, honestly, a very clever solution to the issue of hanging wires for an early-stage wearable prototype.

“One of the things that’s really helped the team is being really focused on a problem. Even if you spent months on something, if it’s not actually going to achieve that goal, then sometimes you honor the work that’s been done and say, ‘we’ve learned a ton of things during the process, but this is not the one that’s actually going to solve that problem.’ ”

The most notable takeaway from the video is some additional footage of prototypes. One imagines that, by the time Alphabet feels confident sharing that sort of stuff with the world, the team has moved well beyond it. “It doesn’t matter how janky and cardboard-and-duct-tape it is, as long as it helps you learn — and everyone can prototype, even while working from home,” the X team writes in an associated blog post.

The one other bit of information we have at the moment is a granted patent application from last year, which comes with all of the standard patent warnings. Seeing a patent come to fruition is often even more of a longshot (read: moonshot) than betting on an Alphabet X project to graduate. But they can offer some insight into where a team is headed — or at least some of the avenues it has considered.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The patent highlights similar attempts to anticipate movement as those highlighted above. It effectively uses sensors and machine learning to adjust the tension on regions of the garments designed to assist the wearer.

Image Credits: Alphabet X

The proposed methods and systems provide adaptive support and assistance to users by performing intelligent dynamic adjustment of tension and stiffness in specific areas of fabric or by applying forces to non-stretch elements within a garment that is comfortable enough to be suitable for frequent, everyday usage. The methods include detecting movement of a particular part of a user’s body enclosed within the garment, determining an activity classification for that movement, identifying a support configuration for the garment tailored to the activity classification, and dynamically adjusting a tension and/or a stiffness of one or more controllable regions of the garment or applying force to non-stretch fabric elements in the garment to provide customized support and assistance for the user and the activity the user is performing.

It’s nice seeing Alphabet take a more organic approach to developing robotics startups in-house, rather than the acquisitions and consolidations that occurred several years back that ultimately found Boston Dynamics briefly living under the Google umbrella. Of course, we saw the recent graduation of the Wendy Tan White-led Intrinsic, which builds software for industrial robotics.

All right, so there’s a whole bunch of words about a project we know next to nothing about! Gotta love the startup space, where we’re definitely not spinning wild speculation based on a thin trail of breadcrumbs.

I will say for sure that I definitely know more about Agility Robotics than I did this time last week, after speaking with the Oregon-based company’s CEO and CTO. The conversation was ostensibly about a new video the team released showcasing Digit doing some menial tasks in a warehouse/fulfillment setting.

Some key things I learned:

  1. Agility sold a dozen Cassie robots, largely to researchers.
  2. It’s already sold “substantially more” Digits.
  3. The team includes 56 people, primarily in Oregon (makes sense, as an OSU spinout), with plans to expand operations into Pittsburgh, everyone’s favorite rustbelt robotics hub.
  4. Agility is consulting with “major logistics companies.”
  5. In addition to the Ford delivery deal, the company has its sights set on warehouse tasks in hopes of offering a more adaptable solution than ground-up warehouse automation companies like Berkshire Gray.

Image Credits: Agility Robotics

Oh, and a good quote about job loss from CEO Damion Shelton:

The conversation around automation has shifted a bit. It’s viewed as an enabling technology to allow you to keep the workforce that you have. There are a lot of conversations around the risks of automation and job loss, but the job loss is actually occurring now, in advance of the automated solutions.

Agility hopes to start rolling out its robots to locations in the next year. More immediate than that, however, is this deal between Simbe Robotics and midwestern grocery chain, Schnuks. The food giant will be bringing Simbe’s inventor robots to all of its 111 stores, four years after it began piloting the tech.

Schnuck Markets deploys Tally robot by Simbe Robotics to its stores – bringing shelf insights for better shopping experience. Photographed on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, in Des Peres, Mo.

Simbe says its Tally robot can reduce out of stock items by 20-30% and detect 14x more missing inventor than standard human scanning.

Carbon Robotics (not to be confused with the prosthetic company of the same name that made it onto our Hardware Battlefield a few years back) just raised $27 million. The Series B brings its total funding to around $36 million. The Seattle-based firm builds autonomous robots that zap weeds with lasers. We highlighted their most recent robot in this column back in April.

And seeing how we recently updated you on iRobot’s continued indefinite delay for the Terra, here’s a new robotic mower from Segway-Ninebot.

Image Credits: Segway-Ninebot

Segway’s first robotic lawnmower is designed for a lawn area of up to 3,000 square meters, has several features of a smart helper in the garden and is the quietest mower on the market with only 54 dB. The Frequent Soft Cut System (FSCS) ensures that the lawn is cut from above and the desired height is reached gradually. Offset blades allow cutting as close as possible to edges and corners.

That’s it for the week. Don’t forget to sign up to get the upcoming free newsletter version of Actuator delivered to your inbox.

#actuator, #agility-robotics, #boston-dynamics, #hardware, #industrial-robot, #machine-learning, #ninebot, #robotics, #samsung, #segway, #simbe

AxleHire to scale Tortoise and URB-E zero-emissions delivery solutions nationally

Last-mile logistics supplier AxleHire provides same-day and next-day delivery through a network that includes gig economy, couriers and traditional carriers. Over the past year, it has been quietly piloting automated repositioning startup Tortoise’s remote controlled delivery robots in Los Angeles and compact container delivery service URB-E’s e-bike container delivery in New York City. On Thursday, it announced plans to scale the two very different zero-emissions pilot programs nationally over the next 12 months.

AxleHire, which is known for parcel delivery and restaurant meal kit delivery like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, plans to bring over 100 Tortoise robots across the country. During URB-E’s summer deployment with AxleHire in NYC, it deployed 10 vehicles moving 100 containers per week. Now it will deploy 50 URB-E vehicles moving anywhere from 300 to 500 containers per week in NYC, LA and San Francisco, as well as other launch cities. The company, which raised a $20 million round in April, didn’t specify every city it would be entering with these new programs, but Tortoise and URB-E said we can look to the cities AxleHire already operates in: Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

AxleHire’s style is to establish delivery hubs in or near dense metro areas, which makes for easier trips and less miles traveled in total. The partnerships with Tortoise and URB-E are a part of AxleHire’s mission to create more sustainable and cheaper last-mile delivery. The company says its partnerships with the two startups have also lowered its emissions by 95%. AxleHire is providing an example of one company trialing two very different greener and tech-focused forms of transporting goods, so it will likely serve as an interesting case study for other last-mile logistics providers.

Image Credits: URB-E

In New York, AxleHire and URB-E have been working together on a microcontainer delivery system between Brooklyn and Manhattan. URB-E’s vehicles are specifically designed to be able to ride in the bike lanes, despite their ability to haul over 800 pounds. AxleHire says its pilot with URB-E resulted in a six times reduction in traffic and a model that is three times cheaper than EV delivery vans, largely based on the avoidance of parking tickets.

Over the past year in Los Angeles, AxleHire stationed Tortoise’s electric, 4-mph remote-piloted carts, which carried up to 120 pounds worth of goods, in its delivery microhubs in cities, allowing the little bots with friendly smiley faces to go back and forth, making about 15 deliveries per day within a three-mile radius. In addition, AxleHire loaded a large truck with multiple packages and a Tortoise robot, which would then drive into a dense residential area. This truck would serve as a mobile delivery hub, doing its own deliveries while the bot goes back and forth delivering parcels and being reloaded all day long.

“It’s basically the hive model, where we’re augmenting the existing van or truck in terms of how many deliveries they could do in a two-hour stretch,” Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder of Tortoise, told TechCrunch. “There’s communication happening with our subject confirming they’ll be home to receive it. If so, they get notified that the robot’s on the way when it’s about 10 minutes away, and then when it arrives, the customer will come out and get it from the containers in the robot.”

The Tortoise bots, which can ride on sidewalks or bike lanes, have both swappable batteries and can be plugged and charged, according to Shevelenko. On a single charge, they can get around 10 to 15 miles of range.

While Tortoise’s bots will be operated 100% remotely over the next year, remote positioning is not Tortoise’s end goal at all. Autonomy is the goal, and doing partnerships like this, as well as with shared e-scooter operators like Spin, allows Tortoise not only to get into markets that currently don’t have regulation for self-driving vehicles, but also to just get into the market now, rather than spending multiple years mapping it first. The only real infrastructure the bots need is 4G connectivity.

“The beauty is that we can ship the robot to a new location and because we have the benefit of human judgment oversight every inch of the journey,” said Shevelenko. “We don’t need perfect routing or perfect mapping. We’re filling in the maps over time, and that gives us a big data advantage.”

By slowly collecting routing data over the course of the next year, Tortoise will be giving its system more data to learn on and create the most optimal route for the specific use case of low-speed and lightweight delivery vehicles. Shevelenko says the long-term vision of Tortoise is to have its tech on any light electric vehicle, whether it be a delivery robot, a scooter, a cleaning robot, security robot or construction robot. Delivery is a great place to start, given the massive demand in the COVID marketplace.

“The more vehicles we have with Tortoise eyes on them, the more data we’re collecting, which means we’re doing trips with higher autonomy and lower costs,” said Shevelenko.

Aside from allowing for max data collection, remote controlled delivery bots over the next year also give Tortoise the advantage of getting the community used to this new tech.

“We think the right way to enter a community is first to reassure people that this is safe and get them comfortable with it,” said Shevelenko. “Once it’s part of daily life, then slowly over time, we can turn on more autonomy, but there’s no need to rush into that right now. The practical reality is, everybody’s claiming they’re doing autonomy but they aren’t. They always have a fallback like safety drivers or remote monitors. Nobody actually trusts their economy system, and so we’re kind of leaning into that and not trying to do something that is impossible.”

#axlehire, #delivery, #logistics, #robotics, #tc, #tortoise, #transportation, #urb-e

Agility Robotics’ Digit gets a warehouse gig

A new video from Agility Robotics showcases an increasing familiar sight: advanced, autonomous robots performing boring warehouse tasks. It’s not the sort of video that tends to be hugely viral for a company, rather, it’s the sort of meat and potatoes proof of concept that companies like Boston Dynamics wedge between flashy videos of parkour and highly choreographed dance sessions.

Ultimately, however, this is precisely the sort of tasks the robots’ creators are targeting: the well-known trio of dull, dirty and dangerous. Moving payloads back and forth certainly ticks that first box pretty well. There’s a reason warehouse and fulfillment workers often liken their work to robotics.

“The conversation around automation has shifted a bit,” Agility CEO Damion Shelton tells TechCrunch. “It’s viewed as an enabling technology to allow you to keep the workforce that you have. There are a lot of conversations around the risks of automation and job loss, but the job loss is actually occurring now, in advance of the automated solutions.”

Digit, the bipedal robot the company announced back in 2020, had its most high-profile moment in the spotlight after Agility announced a partnership with auto giant Ford back at CES. The auto giant currently owns two of the robots, with long-term plans to utilize the technology for delivery.

Today’s video is an attempt to showcase some more short-term solutions, putting Digit to work on more menial tasks.

Image Credits: Agility Robotics

“The value and goal of a machine like Digit is the generality,” CTO Jonathan Hurst says. “It’s a robot that can operate in human environments and spaces. It’s a relatively straightforward thing for very structured, repetitive tasks, to say, ‘there’s going to be boxes over there. We’re going to tell you which one from a databasing system, and we want you to move it over there.’ Maybe this is something that it does for three or four hours a day and then it goes to a different space and does it three or four hours and then it unloads a tractor trailer.”

The company sees Digit’s value as a more plug and play solution than something like Berkshire Gray’s offerings, which builds a fully automated warehouse from the ground up. There’s still programming involved, of course. An Agility rep will appear on-site to pre-map a location and help the robot execute its repetitive tasks.

“In terms of where we can actually deploy and do useful work for a customer, it turns out a lot of the tasks — walk from Point A to Point B, pick up and carry a package — are portable across these environments,” says Shelton. “There’s no real core piece of technology that you develop, that’s different for an indoor environment versus outdoor. It’s just the level of maturity. I think we’ve reached that pretty quickly on the indoor stuff, so it’s a logical first place for deployment.”

Image Credits: Agility Robotics

Agility hasn’t announced partners beyond Ford, though it says it’s currently working with “major logistics companies.” It hasn’t revealed numbers of Digits sold, either, though it tells TechCrunch that the number is “substantially more” than the dozen Cassie units it sold prior to Digit, largely for research purposes. Sales are largely CapEx at the moment, though the company is exploring other opportunities, such as a RaaS (robotics-as-a-service model).

Agility’s team is currently at 56 people, primarily based in Oregon (the company got its start as part of OSU’s nascent robotics division), where the robots are primarily manufactured.

“We’ve grown pretty rapidly since last December,” says Shelton. “We’re expanding our Pittsburgh office by the end of the year, in addition to the Oregon office. We have a pretty rapid growth rate. As we’ve been increasing the production rate on the robots, we’ve had a fair amount of hiring for that. We just moved into a new facility that we remodeled, back in June.”

 

#agility-robotics, #digit, #fulfillment, #robotics

Carbon Robotics secures $27M for its autonomous field weeders

Agricultural robotics firm Carbon Robotics (not to be confused with our former Battlefield contestant) announced this week that it has secured $27 million in funding. The round — which features Anthos Capital, Ignition Capital, Fuse Venture Partners and Voyager Capital — follows an $8.4 million Series A raised back in 2019. The company’s total funding is now at around $36 million.

“Weeding is one of the biggest challenges farmers face, especially with the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds and increasing interest in organic and regenerative methods,” founder and CEO Paul Mikesell said in a release. “This round of investment will enable us to scale our operations to meet the increasing demand for this technology. Additionally, this funding will allow our team to continue to innovate new products and identify revolutionary ways to apply technology to agriculture.”

The Seattle-based startup’s primary offering is an autonomous robot that uses lasers to zap weeds. The round follows the April announcement of Carbon’s latest-generation Autonomous Weeder, which it says is capable of eradicating around 100,000 weeds per hour. The pandemic has continued to accelerate interest in many agricultural robotics companies, as labor shortages continue to mount.

Carbon notes some international bans on various pesticides have left many farmers searching for an alternative solution. A system that works without the need for harmful chemicals that also reduces human labor in an industry often suffering from shortages in headcount has clear appeal.

The company says it has already sold out of its 2021 and 2022 stock, so one assumes scaling up production and headcount will be key investments from this round.

#agriculture, #anthos-capital, #carbon-robotics, #funding, #fuse-venture-partners, #ignition-capital, #robotics, #voyager-capital

Coral Capital closes third fund with $128M for startups in Japan

Coral Capital, a Tokyo-based venture capital firm, announced today that it has closed its third fund, Coral Capital III, raising $128 million (14 billion yen). Coral Capital’s total assets under management (AUM) is now $275 million.

Limited partners in the vehicle include Mizuho Bank, Mitsubishi Estate, Shinsei Bank, Pavilion Capital, Founders Found, Dai-ichi Life Insurance, GREE, and undisclosed domestic and international institutional investors.

Coral Capital, founded by two partners James Riney and Yohei Sawayama, will continue to invest in seed and early-stage companies in Japan, deploying first checks from $500,000 to $5 million, and follow-on funding, CEO and founding partner Riney told TechCrunch.

“We have made a few large follow-on investments – $20 million into SmartHR and $17 million into Graffer. we also allocated a significant portion of our latest fund for follow-on investment,” Riney said. About 30% of its third fund is from global investors including the US, Asia and Europe, and Coral Capital wants to be a bridge between its Japan-based portfolio companies and global venture capital community for reaching international scale, Riney continued.

What makes the latest fund unique is that it has a longer fund life that can be extended to 14 years, Riney said. “We want our founders to focus on building without the pressure of a VC looking for a quick exit,” Riney told TechCrunch. Its previous two funds had about 10 years of fund life, Riney noted.

Riney and Sawayama, who were co-founders of 500 Startups Japan, launched their first fund in partnership with 500 Startups in February 2016. Coral Capital has set up its $45 million second fund, Capital Fund II under their own brand name, in February 2019.

Coral Capital has invested in over 80 companies in Japan and exited 7 companies so far, according to Riney. It has made a raft of investments including SmartHR, Graffer, GITAI, and Kyoto Fusioneering.

The company will focus on investing digital transformation in areas including SaaS, insurance, fintech, healthcare, deep tech, fusion engineering companies, robotic companies, Riney told TechCrunch.

The Japanese startup ecosystem is striking its stride now compared to 9 years ago, Riney said. As Riney and Sawayama started investing in seed and early-stage startup companies back in 2012, the startup world was a black box in the country, according to Riney. There was less than a billion invested into startups every year and hardly any unicorns in Japan, and there was not enough information available in Japanese on building companies, he said.

Many startups in Japan are now forgoing an early IPO and raising larger amounts in later stage rounds, Riney said.

Japan’s annual startup investment is estimated at $5 billion, with six unicorns including Coral Capital’s portfolio company, up from just about $600 million in 2012. The $5 billion in annual startup investment is nothing when you consider that the U.S. and China attract tens of billions, and even neighboring country Korea attracts about $4 billion and produced Coupang, a decacorn, Riney said.  “We can do better, and we will” and Coral Capital will continue to support and play an important role in driving the ecosystem forward in Japan, Riney added.

Coral Capital also plans to double down on its media outlet, Coral Insights, and recruit staff for building its community. Many startup founders, employees, and investors publish content on their learnings, raising the bar for everyone in the ecosystem and Japan is starting to look a lot more like Silicon Valley, Riney said.

#asia, #coral-capital, #japan, #robotics, #saas, #space, #startup-ecosystem, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital, #venture-funding

Rugged showcases its layout-printing construction robots

Few robotics categories are poised to benefit more from the events of the past year than construction. It’s a booming field that could benefit massively from automaton, a fact that’s only been amplified as the pandemic brought many nonessential businesses to a standstill. We’ve seen a number of players in the category raise notable rounds over the past year or so, including Toggle, Dusty, Scaled and SkyMul.

Founded in 2018, Houston-based Rugged Robotics raised a $2.5 million seed round back in 2019. While the company isn’t actively raising at the moment, it has already begun to roll out its technology in early pilots, including a partnership with Massachusetts-based construction-firm Consigli.

Image Credits: Rugged Robotics

“We had a client that was pretty progressive looking,” said Consigli’s Jack Moran. “It’s a building where we were controlling the core shell of the project, as well as the fit-out, which was pretty complex — lots of odd shapes that would be a challenge for us.”

Rugged’s self-described “layout Roomba” was used to help build a 10-story building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, effectively drawing blueprints on the ground of the space that amounted to around 40,000 square feet per floor. The partnership effectively finds Rugged taking a key step from its early research and development mode to commercialize.

“The layout process is the most important task in the construction process,” Rugged founder and CEO Derrick Morse said in an interview with TechCrunch. “Marking where things are installed defines where things are built. A mistake made during layout trickles into the overall construction process and it results in rework, delays and additional expenses.”

The team is still small, with a headcount of around six full-time employees, including co-founders with backgrounds at NASA and Samsung. The team currently has three robots, with plans to expand to five. They print dot matrix ink patterns on the ground to give construction teams a real-world orientation for the buildings they’re creating.

Image Credits: Rugged Robotics

A member of the Rugged team travels to the site with the robot to supervise the robot as it executes on its plans, with the startup charging the construction company through a RaaS (robotics as a service) model.

“We have insatiable customer demand,” said Morse. “We have several multibillion-dollar contractors that are excited to do pilots and demos with us. We’ll be growing the organization and fleet in the upcoming 12 months, and we’ll likely be bringing in additional capital to enable that growth.”

#construction, #robotics, #rugged, #rugged-robotics

Scientists built a tiny robot to mimic the mantis shrimp’s knock-out punch

An interdisciplinary team of roboticists, engineers and biologists modeled the mechanics of the mantis shrimp’s punch and built a robot that mimics the movement.

Enlarge / An interdisciplinary team of roboticists, engineers and biologists modeled the mechanics of the mantis shrimp’s punch and built a robot that mimics the movement. (credit: Second Bay Studios and Roy Caldwell/Harvard SEAS)

The mantis shrimp boasts one of the most powerful, ultrafast punches in nature—it’s on par with the force generated by a .22 caliber bullet. This makes the creature an attractive object of study for scientists eager to learn more about the relevant biomechanics. Among other uses, it could lead to small robots capable of equally fast, powerful movements. Now a team of Harvard University researchers have come up with a new biomechanical model for the mantis shrimp’s mighty appendage, and they built a tiny robot to mimic that movement, according to a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“We are fascinated by so many remarkable behaviors we see in nature, in particular when these behaviors meet or exceed what can be achieved by human-made devices,” said senior author Robert Wood, a roboticist at Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “The speed and force of mantis shrimp strikes, for example, are a consequence of a complex underlying mechanism. By constructing a robotic model of a mantis shrimp striking appendage, we are able to study these mechanisms in unprecedented detail.”

Wood’s research group made headlines several years ago when they constructed RoboBee, a tiny robot capable of partially untethered flight. The ultimate goal of that initiative is to build a swarm of tiny interconnected robots capable of sustained untethered flight—a significant technological challenge, given the insect-sized scale, which changes the various forces at play. In 2019, Wood’s group announced their achievement of the lightest insect-scale robot so far to have achieved sustained, untethered flight—an improved version called the RoboBee X-Wing. (Kenny Breuer, writing in Nature, described it as a “a tour de force of system design and engineering.”)

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#animals, #biology, #biomechanics, #mantis-shrimp, #robotics, #science

The Station: Rivian makes its IPO move, Nuro pushes into Nevada and Waymo scales up in SF

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello readers: Welcome to The Station, your central hub for all past, present and future means of moving people and packages from Point A to Point B. I’m back after a one-week hiatus. Did ya miss me? Yes, of course you did.

A lot happened while I was away and I’ll try my best to highlight the important stuff. Before I get to the hard news, I want to direct your attention to the latest founders Q&A — an ongoing series to highlight people who have started and are running transportation companies. Our twist? We will check on these founders a year from when their interview has been published.

This week, Zūm co-founder and CEO Ritu Narayan was in the hot seat. Check it out.

Also, it’s been awhile since I have directed y’all to The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer. We’ve had some great episodes in recent weeks, notably our interview with mobility-focused venture capitalist Olaf Sakkers. He joined the show to discuss “The Mobility Disruption Framework,” a funny, insightful book about the trends and technologies transforming the ways we get around. You can read the book here.

As always, you can email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Nuro’s Nevada play

Nuro-Vegas

Image Credits: Nuro

Earlier this month, we published a series of articles that took a deep dive into autonomous vehicle technology company Nuro. We mentioned that the company was aiming to move into Nevada. Now, there are more details.

Nuro, which is applying its AV tech to delivery, is investing $40 million to develop a factory and closed course test track in southern Nevada. Nuro co-founder and CEO Jiajun Zhu said this will allow Nuro to “build tens of thousands of robots.”

And Nuro isn’t wasting any time getting started. Construction on the factory will begin in fall 2021 and is expected to be completed in 2022. Both the factory and closed-course testing facility are expected to be fully operational in 2022, the company said.

The factory, which will be more than 125,000 square feet, will be used to build Nuro’s third-generation autonomous vehicles with current and future partners. BYD North America will be Nuro’s manufacturing partner.

Nuro is also taking over 74 acres of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to build a closed-course testing facility that will allow the development and validation of its autonomous on-road vehicles. The testing track will measure bot performance in a broad range of scenarios, from avoiding pedestrians and pets to giving bicycles space on shared roadways, as well as environmental tests and vehicle systems validation. the company said.

Deal of the week

money the station

Rivian has raised more than $10.5 billion in its lifetime, funds that have been directed towards the design, development and production of its first two electric vehicles as well as commercial vans for Amazon.

It’s a hefty sum that should be enough to fulfill that mission — and more. And yet, even Rivian is no match for the public market’s siren song.

The company, just weeks before its first electric pickup trucks are expected to be delivered to customers, confidentially filed paperwork with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to go public. A Rivian IPO announcement has been expected for months now. The valuation the company is shooting for is the big surprise. If Bloomberg’s sources are right, Rivian is shooting for a valuation roughly around $80 billion.

That’s nearly three times larger than the last valuation I was able to nail down in January. At that time, the company had just raised another $2.65 billion from existing investors T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., Fidelity Management and Research Company, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Coatue and D1 Capital Partners. New investors also participated in that round, which pushed Rivian’s valuation to $27.6 billion, a source familiar with the investment round told TechCrunch at the time.

Rivian has raised more money since then. In July, the company announced it had closed a $2.5 billion private funding round led by Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, D1 Capital Partners, Ford Motor and funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. Third Point, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Dragoneer Investment Group and Coatue also participated in that round. The company did not share a post-money valuation at the time of the July 2021 announcement.

Officially, Rivian says the size and price range for the proposed offering have yet to be determined.

Other deals that got my attention this week …

Coco, the Los Angeles delivery robot startup, raised $36 million in a Series A round led by Sam Altman, Silicon Valley Bank and Founders Fund, with participation from Sam Nazarian, Ellen Chen and Mario Del Pero. It brings the company’s total funding up to around $43 million.

DealerPolicy, an insurance marketplace for automotive retail, raised $110 million in a Series C rouond led by the Growth Equity business within Goldman Sachs Asset Management. Additional investors include 3L Capital and Hudson Structured Capital Management Ltd. Goldman Sachs’ Paul Pate will also join the company’s board of directors.

Getaround, the peer-to-peer car-sharing startup, is in talks to go public through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Altitude Acquisition Corp , Reuters reported. The company has confidentially sought investors to participate in the deal through a private placement in public equity, or PIPE, at a valuation of around $1.7 billion.

HyPoint, the two-year-old fuel cell developer, has secured a $6.5 million development agreement with Piasecki Aircraft Corporation for the design and certification of hydrogen fuel cell systems. Through the partnership, HyPoint aims to deliver five full-scale, 650 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for ground testing, demo flights and the certification process.

KKR, the global investment firm, has plans to acquire New Zealand bus and coach company Ritchies Transport, which currently has a fleet of more than 1,600 vehicles and 42 depots that operate across the country. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but sources familiar with the circumstances say the deal values Ritchies at over $347 million ($500 million NZD). This is KKR’s first infrastructure investment in New Zealand.

Malta Inc., an energy storage company, said that Chevron Technology Ventures and Piva Capital have joined a group of investors including Proman, Alfa Laval, Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Dustin Moskovitz in its oversubscribed Series B financing, increasing the round to more than $60 million.

MaxAB, the Egyptian B2B e-commerce platform that serves food and grocery retailers, raised a $15 million extension from existing investors RMBV, IFC, Flourish Ventures, Crystal Stream Capital, Rise Capital, Endeavour Catalyst, Beco Capital and 4DX Ventures. The extension brings its total Series A fundraise to $55 million.

Point Pickup Technologies, a last-mile delivery service, acquired white-label e-commerce platform GrocerKey for $42 million. The acquisition means Point Pickup will be able to offer retailers services such as same-day delivery under their own brand name, rather than under third parties like Instacart.

Upstream, the Israeli automotive security firm, raised $62 million in a Series C funding round led by Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance and was joined by new investors I.D.I. Insurance, 57 Stars’ NextGen Mobility Fund and La Maison Partners. Existing investors Glilot Capital, Salesforce venture, Volvo Group Venture Capital, Nationwide, Delek US and others also participated in the round. With this latest round, the company has raised a total of $105 million since its founding in 2017.

Volvo Group has agreed to buy heavy duty truck subsidiary of Jiangling Motors Corp for about 1.1 billion Swedish crowns ($125.7 million) to make trucks in China, Reuters reported.

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Welcome back to policy corner! The stalemate over the budget reconciliation that I warned might take months to break — just kidding! The House managed to pass the $3.5 trillion budget resolution and made progress on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, in a 220-212 bipartisan vote. The vote includes a non-binding agreement to vote on the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.

The path is now clear for Democrats to pass one of the most socially progressive budgets in decades, with a slew of social safety net provisions for childcare, healthcare, climate and education. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had previously sworn she would stall the infrastructure bill until the budget passed, so the infrastructure bill passing sometime in our lifetime is suddenly looking like a much more realistic proposal!

Progressive Democrats in particular are committed to keeping the fate of the two bills intertwined. “We will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill,” Progressive Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.), said in a statement.

Speaking of the two bills… while consumer incentives for electric vehicles were slashed from the infrastructure bill, they did survive the budget reconciliation. Right now, there currently exists a 30D tax credit, but the $7,500 incentive doesn’t include automakers that have sold more than 200,000 EVs (so General Motors and Tesla don’t qualify).

Leilani Gonzalez with the Zero Emission Transportation Association urged reform to the EV tax credit. She suggested that Congress slash means-testing for the credit, like one that only allows people under a certain annual income to access it.

“Congress should ensure that this tax credit is not impeded by restrictive means-tested requirements, like low manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) or adjusted gross income (AGI) caps,” she wrote. “These limitations ignore the public benefits of EVs that leave everyone better off, and they would only serve to hinder EV adoption.”

Even beyond reform, some Democrats are pushing for a direct cash rebate — meaning that the dollar amount would just be taken off the cost of the car at the point of sale, rather than the consumer having to wait to get that money back at tax time. But we’re still a long way from seeing a new kind of consumer incentive put into law, with some Democrats urging a $12,500 tax credit, and others arguing for a rebate, with still others arguing for either but with means-testing like what Gonzalez writes about.

In any case, we’ll be keeping an eye on it. It’s very hard to imagine how the country will achieve any kind of meaningful transition to electric vehicles by 2030 without some mechanism to make them easier (and cheaper) to buy.

In other news, the Federal Aviation Administration is spending $20.4 million in grants to airports who want to electrify equipment and transition to ZEVs. This isn’t about the planes themselves, though they tend to get the most media attention. These grants would be for less sexy things like airport shuttle buses and mobile ground power units, but which collectively still generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. The FAA has earmarked $300 million out of its $3.5 billion budget for electrification initiatives.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Notable news and other tidbits

It’s one of those weeks folks. Lotta news so let’s get down to it.

ADAS

Tesla CEO Elon Musk admitted that the latest version of its so-called FSD tech — which is an upgraded version of its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system — is “not great.” He went on to write that the “Autopilot/AI team is rallying to improve as fast as possible. We’re trying to have a single tech stack for both highway & city streets, but it requires massive [neural network] retraining.”

Autonomous vehicles

Cruise, GM’s self-driving car subsidiary, launched a new initiative called Farm to Fleet that will allow the company to source solar power from farms in California’s Central Valley. Cruise is directly purchasing renewable energy credits from Sundale Vineyards and Moonlight Companies to help power its fleet of all-electric autonomous vehicles in San Francisco.

Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky has a great explainer on the various levels of SAE autonomy.

Toyota suspended the operation of its e-Palette autonomous shuttles — which do have two human safety operators on board — at the Paralympic Games Athletes’ Village after one of the shuttles struck an athlete. The schedule for resuming operations at the Paralympic Games has not yet been determined, the company said. A spokesperson also noted to me that only the shuttles at the Olympics were halted. The e-Palette program is still operational.

Update: Since the newsletter went out to subscribers over the weekend, Toyota has restarted the e-Palette shuttles in the Olympic village. It’s important to note that these shuttles use a combination of manual and autonomous driving modes while underway. Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for the incident during a recent interview. The translation provided in closed captioning isn’t great, but he does make some interesting comments about the readiness of autonomous vehicle technology. In short: it’s not ready and humans are still better drivers.

Waymo has launched a robotaxi service that will be open to certain vetted riders in San Francisco. The company officially kicked off its Waymo One Trusted Tester program in the city with a fleet of all-electric Jaguar I-PACEs equipped with the company’s fifth generation of its autonomous vehicle system. This is a big step for Waymo and we’ll be watching closely to see how the ramp mirrors, or differs, from its service in the Phoenix area.

Greg Bensinger took a look at the terms of service on the Waymo One ride-hailing app and in a tweet thread provides a breakdown of what riders are agreeing to, including that the company will record video of riders while being driven around San Francisco.

Waymo also has decided to get out of the lidar sales business as it shifts its focus to deploying its autonomous vehicle technology across its ride-hailing and trucking divisions. In 2019, Waymo announced it would sell its short-range lidar, called Laser Bear Honeycomb, to companies outside of self-driving cars. It initially targeted robotics, security and agricultural technology.

Electric vehicles

GM expanded (again) its recall of Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles due to fire risks from battery manufacturing defects. The automaker said it would seek reimbursement from LG Chem, its battery cell manufacturing partner, for what it expects to be $1 billion worth of losses. this is the third recall GM has issued for this vehicle related to batteries.

Lordstown Motors hired Daniel A. Ninivaggi, a longtime automotive executive and former head of Carl C. Icahn’s holding company, as CEO and a board member. The appointment follows months of tumult at Lordstown, which became publicly traded via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Other bits

Aria Alamalhodaei wrote up a feature on Buoyant, a recent Y Combinator grad and one of several airship startups that have popped up recently.

Mercedes-Benz’s chief technology officer Sajjad Khan is leaving the automaker to start a venture capital fund, the company said in a statement. Khan’s replacement, Magnus Östberg, will take over the CTO role effective Sept. 1.

Porsche Cars North America added its entire U.S. inventory of new cars to an online marketplace that it launched in May 2020. The platform called Porsche Finder is one of the ways the automaker is trying to keep up with customer demands and the industry’s shift to digital commerce. The product lets customers search by vehicle model and generation as well as price, equipment, packages and colors, on all new and used vehicle inventory from its 193 U.S. dealerships.

Tesla wants to supply electricity directly to customers, according to an application filed with Texas electricity regulators earlier this month. Energy Choice Matters first reported on the application.

The application, filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Texas on August 16, is a request to become what’s called a “retail electric provider” under its subsidiary Tesla Energy Ventures. On the deregulated, idiosyncratic Texas power market, REPs generally purchase wholesale electricity from power generators and sell it to customers. More than 100 REPs currently compete on the open market.

#automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #cruise, #electric-vehicles, #elon-musk, #gm, #government, #nuro, #rivian, #robotics, #tesla, #the-station, #toyota, #transportation, #venture-capital, #waymo

Simbe’s robots will be deployed across midwestern grocery chain, Schnucks

St. Louis-based grocery chain Schnucks (one of those “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good” situations, one imagines) announced this week that it will be deploying technology from Simbe Robotics across its 111 U.S. locations.

The deal comes a year and a half into a global pandemic that has substantially increased interest in automation, particularly around essential businesses – a qualifier that certainly applies to grocery stores.

Simbe’s mobile robots provide inventory scanning, offering a constantly updating picture of what’s on the store shelves and what needs to be restocked. Anyone who’s ever worked retail can almost certainly tell you that doing inventory is one of the biggest headaches in the industry, often requiring hours-long shutdowns or overnight marathons to complete.

The “multi-year” chain-wide rollout comes four years after Schnucks first began piloting the tech. Over the years, the partnership has gradually expanded. Simbe says its shelf-scanning Tally robot is capable of reducing out of stock items by 20-30% and detect 14 times more missing inventory than traditional human scanning.

Schnuck Markets deploys Tally robot by Simbe Robotics to its stores – bringing shelf insights for better shopping experience. Photographed on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, in Des Peres, Mo.

“By deploying Tally to all stores, we are fully operationalizing these insights into our supply chain and expanding our ability to leverage real-time data to make revenue impacting decisions,” Schnucks VP Dave Steck said in a release. “Tally has become an integral component of our stores, streamlining operations and ultimately creating a better store experience for our customers and teammates.”

A number of companies are working to automate the world of inventory scanning, including Brain Corp and Bossa Nova, though the latter was dealt a massive setback when Walmart ended a large contract at the end of 2020.

#inventory, #robotics, #robots, #simbe-robotics

I don’t know what to do with those tossed salads and robot legs

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One of the most fascinating aspects of Boston Dynamics’ transition into a commercial organization is watching the company — and its partners — figure out real-world jobs for Spot. There’s no question that the tech is impressive, but there’s always been the broader subject of usefulness beyond the company’s initial purpose of serving as off-road pack mules.

We’ve seen some interesting examples since Spot first went on sale, including inspection for constructions sites and potentially dangerous settings — from nuclear power plants to off-shore oil rigs. There have also been some, shall we say, more controversial gigs, including Spot’s time as an electronic K9 for the NYPD.

But maybe finding the perfect job for Spot entails thinking both outside the box and Earth’s gravitational pull. NASA’s JPL in California has been working with the quadrupedal robot for a couple of years now, first as part of a DARPA challenge and now as a potential way to explore extraterrestrial caves. For this week’s installment of Actuator, we spoke to JPL NeBula Autonomy Project lead Ali Agha about the partnership.

How long has NASA been working with Spot?

We have been working with the SPOT robots for about two years now. We initially integrated our NeBula autonomy and AI solutions on the Spot robot as one of our robots participating in the DARPA Subterranean challenge competition. However, since then we have extended the application of these robots and JPL’s NeBula autonomy solution to planetary cave exploration and surface exploration as well as terrestrial disaster response and mining efforts.

What is the advantage of using legs (as opposed to wheels) on the Martian surface?

Imagine a no-road terrain on Earth. The ability to walk will allow traversing different elements of such a terrain much better than a typical wheeled vehicle. Similarly, legged locomotion can potentially enable totally new missions when exploring extreme and challenging terrains on planetary bodies in the solar system beyond our home planet.

How closely does NASA/JPL work with a company like Boston Dynamics on a project like this?

We have had an amazing collaboration with Boston Dynamics and work closely with them. On our project, JPL and Boston Dynamics’ efforts are highly synergistic. At JPL, we develop autonomy and AI solutions (called NeBula) acting as the robot brain to enable fully autonomous exploration of extreme and challenging environments with very minimal (to none) prior information about the terrain or environmental conditions.

NeBula is agnostic to the choice of robotic platform and can be used on wheeled rovers, legged platforms, as well as drones. On the other hand, Boston Dynamics is developing cutting-edge incredible robotic locomotion systems that can maintain the stability of the system over extreme environments. As a result, the combination of an autonomy solution like NeBula with a capable locomotion system like Boston Dynamics’ Spot opens up avenues for totally new classes of planetary and terrestrial missions.

I know autonomy is a big piece of this. Do the robots need to be able to function with no human intervention?

Yes, autonomy is the main focus of our project. In planetary exploration, specifically, when exploring underground caves, there is no, or very minimal, prior information about the environment. Further, when robots enter the cave, they typically lose communication with the surface and are on their own to accomplish the mission objectives.

As a result, autonomy is a crucial capability to enable such missions to accomplish mission goals with no human intervention when the robot is out of communication exploring previously unseen terrains and environments. To this end, JPL has been developing autonomy and AI solutions (called NeBula) acting as the robot brain, which is now being paired with Boston Dynamics Spot robots as the robot body.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

A bit closer to Earth (as in, roughly 100 to 150 feet above our heads), Alphabet’s Wing announced this week that it’s approaching 100,000 drone deliveries two years after launching in the Brisbane-adjacent city of Logan, Australia. The announcement follows recent insight into Amazon’s struggles in the drone delivery space.

The company told TechCrunch,” I think we’ll launch new services in Australia, Finland and the United States in the next six months. The capabilities of the technology are probably ahead of the regulatory permissions right now.”

Image Credits: Wing

A closer look at some of those 100,000 deliveries:

  • 10,000 cups of coffee
  • 1,700 children’s snack packs
  • 1,200 hot chooks (roasted chicken, in Australian)
  • 2,700 sushi rolls
  • 1,000 loaves of bread